Building Work Capacity: The What, Why, and How

downloadThe other day I was in line to grab a coffee, mindlessly thumbing through my Facebook timeline like the shmucks I make fun of for never looking up from their phones. As usual, there were a lot of pictures of babies, sunsets, elaborate dinner plates, and anti-Trump memes. In the middle of all that nonsense, though, I saw this absolute gem from Charlie Weingroff:

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Talk about an elevator pitch in how to train to look and perform like a stud. Charlie’s one of the smartest guys in the world. I’ve seen him speak multiple times, and really followed his work closely.

When he speaks, I listen.

There is a lot packed into his post, and I’ve written a lot about the importance of improving strength and power, so today, I really just want to dive into a few ways that I attack work capacity.

(In no way does this post try to convey how Charlie views work capacity or trains his clients and athletes, but my thoughts on a statement he made and how it fits into my system of training.)

First, though, I think it’s important to actually define what work capacity is-and isn’t.

Work capacity does not mean death circuits of burpees and kipping pullups. Crossfit has made terms like work capacity, metcon, and rhabdomyolysis pretty recognizable, which is great, but I think it’s left people a little unsure of what they mean specifically.

Greg Nuckols has the best working definition I’ve seen yet of work capacty: the total amount of work you can perform, recover from, and positively adapt to.

Basically, improving the amount of work you can do and still recover from will make you harder to kill.

You need to do more work over time in order to keep making size and strength gainz. This concept isn’t new or novel. You need to do more sets, reps, use a more challenging variation of an exercise, more weight, less rest, or some other combination of variables in order to keep making progress.

Think of it like this: if you can train harder, for longer, without crumbling to the floor in the fetal position, and still recover from it, you’re going to get more jacked.

If you do 3 sets of 10 squats with 2 minutes of rest, then you’re going to eventually adapt to that stress, and are going to need to do more work in order to make your body adapt further. The usual way to do this is to add weight to the bar, or add volume haphazardly here and there. I’m here to show you that there are a number of different ways to better accomplish this, and having a plan in place with the end goal in mind is the way to do it.

Here are 5 ways that I use to improve work capacity in my clients and athletes:

1. Add a set, then add reps-until a certain point.

Adding sets and reps is the easiest way to start building work capacity, but we don’t want to do it in a way that sacrifices the load we’re using. Total training volume = sets x reps x weight, so lowering the weight to increase the other 2 variables doesn’t help us actually increase our volume.

Let’s use dumbbell bench presses as an example, and say you use the 75’s for 3 sets of 8 the first week.

Week 1: 3×8 (x75)=1800 pounds lifted

Week 2: 4×8 (x75#)=2400

Week 3: 3×10 (x75#)=2250

Week 4: 4×10 (x75#)=3000

In a matter of a month, you increased the amount of work you did by 66%! A key point to realize is that you can’t add sets and reps forever, so for week 5, choose a new variation of the lift or keep the same lift and add 5-10 pounds and restart the process at 3 sets of 8.

2. Escalating Density Training

Pick a few exercises, set a watch to 10-15 minutes, and see how many rounds you can get in during the allotted time. These aren’t your typical circuits, however. Keep the weights heavy enough to keep you in a 6-15 rep range, and use non competing lifts (ie: push/pull/lower body as opposed to supersetting exercises that train the same muscles). Remember, in order to do more work over time, you need bigger muscles, and using heavier weights is the key.

As an example, yesterday I had a client who, after heavy sets of split squats and incline dumbbell presses, had a 12 minute timed set of 1 arm dumbbell rows for sets of 8, goblet squats for sets of 10, and feet elevated pushups for sets of 15. In 12 minutes, he got 4 sets of rows and 3 sets of squats and pushups. Next week, we’ll be looking to get 4 rounds or more of each in the same 12 minute block. This would obviously be an improvement in the total work done, and we’d strive to improve on it over a period of 3-4 weeks before adjusting the exercises.

3. Every minute on the minute sets

Put 75% of your max front squat on a bar. Every minute do 2 reps, so if the set took 7 seconds, you rest for the remaining 53 seconds, then do your next set. This won’t be very tough, but the next week you’ll do the same for 6 sets. Then 8. Then 10. Add 10 pounds, and restart at 4 sets of 2.

Seriously start with 75% or so though, even though it’s not hard. Starting too light gives you a bigger window to improve, and it isn’t so heavy that you need 5 minutes of rest time between sets to keep your technique from breaking down. Don’t lose sight of the fact that increasing work capacity is what we’re chasing here, not maximal loads.

4. Beat the amount of time it takes to accomplish a particular rep goal.

Set a watch and see how long it takes you to do 50 perfect chin ups. Next week, try to do it in less time. You can do this with any exercise, for any number of reps, really, but I really like to utilize it with bodyweight exercises like dips, chin ups, and pushups but things like kettlebell swings and snatches work well too if you’re technique is on point. Over the course of 3-4 weeks, you’ll see a pretty significant improvement if you challenge yourself each time.

5. Cut down your rest time

This works great for conditioning. If you are doing sled marches, and are taking 2 minutes between sets checking Instagram, then next week, cut it down to 1:45, the next week to 1:30, and in week 4, to 1:15.

If you’re suffering a significant performance drop with the decreased rest, and your pushes are becoming a lot slower, then maybe you drop the time every 2 weeks instead, or by less time each week. What we’re looking for is improvement, and that doesn’t necessarily come in nice even numbered rest intervals.

Going forward, be more of an evolved trainee and not a knucklehead meathead. Understand that lifting big weights and getting strong is priority number uno, but you need to get more volume in and keep building a bigger gas tank in order to maximize your training efforts. Try some of these out and let me know how they’re going.

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